Master class

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 52, Autumn 2017

Page 70

Jancis Robinson's proudest moment was when she became a Master of Wine. In November, Bonhams holds an auction to help others achieve the same accolade

I've been writing about wine for so long – more than 40 years – that a certain number of awards and decorations have come my way. I'm flattered by all of them, but perhaps the achievement of which I am most proud is having the letters MW after my name – because I feel I really earned it.

This is probably the rarest of my distinctions. Only 356 people in the world today have managed to pass the notoriously stiff Master of Wine exams, even though the initials MW are so keenly sought that 346 hopefuls from 40 countries are currently signed up to the Master of Wine study programme. Studying for the week-long Master of Wine exams, held every June in London, San Francisco and Sydney, effectively means bidding farewell to a social life for at least three years, and transforming the liquid that most people regard as a relaxant into a study aid.

The MW truly is the Mount Everest of wine qualifications. Many aspire, few achieve, and those who do can bask in the exhilaration of serious accomplishment.

Since the MW exams were first held, in London in 1953, they have always had a theoretical and practical element – the practical one involving three terrifying blind-tasting papers, in each of which candidates are presented with a dozen mystery glasses of wine and asked various questions about them which involve assessing and identifying their contents. When I took the exams, I remember training for the tasting papers like an Olympic athlete: trial blind-tastings of mystery wines every week for the months beforehand, every day for weeks beforehand, early in the morning and in the evening for the week immediately beforehand, so that I was in peak condition for the exams themselves.

The theory papers test seriously detailed knowledge of vine-growing, winemaking, selling wine, wine law, fine-wine market movements – a breadth of topics that can be overwhelming. There are tertiary degrees and courses in oenology and viticulture that may be scientifically more specific than the MW syllabus, but it is the intellect and sheer range of knowledge required in a Master of Wine that can be daunting for students. Those few who do manage to pass both practical and theoretical exams, also have to pass a third stage, nowadays an original written 6,000- to 10,000-word research paper on an approved subject. Recent topics have included 'An analysis of the impact of declining farm labour immigration on vineyard operations in Sonoma and
Napa counties over the last decade' and 'What is the effect of serving temperature on the sensory attributes of Tawny Port and Ruby Port?'. MWs have to sign a Code of Conduct, promising to uphold the highest standards in the wine industry.

The fact that literacy is an important element in the theoretical exams has been a significant brake on applications from non-anglophone countries. On 16 November, Bonhams is holding an evening dinner and auction for the Institute to boost the endowment fund. The aim is to provide support for international students, allowing the Institute to increase its reach to prospective MWs, which will, with any luck, make the Institute even more international than it already is.

The exam was initially restricted to members of the UK wine trade. In 1984, I was the first MW from outside the trade. As someone who had come top of the WSET Diploma exams that lead up towards the MW summit, I was encouraged to try the MW when they relaxed the rules. I was extremely busy making television series, writing books, and moving house, as well as the small matter of expecting a baby. But a magazine article comparing different wine writers to various grape varieties in which I was described as a Gamay of Beaujolais (at the time, I was perhaps best known as a populariser of wine via my television work) propelled me to have a go and show I was made of sterner stuff.

I had a fair wind behind me and managed to pass first time, but only thanks to fellow candidate Jane Hunt, who reminded me in the exam room of the existence of Beaujolais. I had, ironically, omitted it from my list of possible wines in the red-wine paper in which the first wine was... a Beaujolais.

In 1988, Michael Hill Smith of Australia was the first MW from outside the UK. Today there are MWs in 29 different countries, including India, Norway, Greece, Israel, China and Japan. The single biggest national group are still the Masters of Wine based in the UK, but there are already 42 in the US and 23 in Australia. The aim is to ensure that anyone, anywhere, who has a good chance of becoming a Master of Wine is able to study to take the exam.

Masters of Wine enjoy unrivalled standing in the world of wine. The MW qualification may be thought to be typically awarded to supercilious males of a certain sort, but I can assure you that the Institute of Masters of Wine is now a thoroughly democratic institution, run substantially by women. A total of 122 women have qualified as MWs over the years, and the female pass-rate is increasingly impressive.

As an Englishwoman, I am proud that this is a world-famous institution whose roots are British, but I would very much like to make it even more international. By bidding in the auction on 16 November, you can help us achieve that aim.

Jancis Robinson OBE MW writes for the Financial Times.

Institute of Masters of Wine Auction
Bonhams, 101 New Bond Street,
Thursday 16 November
Enquiries: Penny Richards

Best cellar

The benefit dinner and auction to raise money for the Endowment Fund of the Institute of Masters of Wine, building international support for the Masters of Wine of the future, takes place on Thursday 16 November at Bonhams, 101 New Bond Street.

Guests at the dinner will be served rare and exceptional wines – including a Château d'Yquem 2005 – and the auction features some extraordinary Super Lots including: A deluxe trip to Bollinger with a private dinner at Bollinger's House and a private tour of the cellars and vineyards; An exclusive stay at Le Pin and Cheval Blanc, with visits to and meals at the acknowledged five greats of the Right Bank: Le Pin, Pétrus, Lafleur, Cheval Blanc and Ausone. An all-inclusive 14-day tour of New Zealand for two people, including return Business Premier tickets from Air New Zealand, special dinners and lunches with winemakers, plus free time for the guests to explore the country. More than 100 further lots will be offered online from
1 November.

Enquiries for tables should be sent to the Institute's Executive Director, Penny Richards

  1. Richard Harvey M.W.
    101 New Bond Street
    London, United Kingdom W1S 1SR
    Work +44 20 7468 5811
    FaxFax: +44 20 7468 5821

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